Email is a necessary part of business, but it can also be a distraction, drawing your attention away from more productive work and bleeding into personal time. But email doesn’t have to take over your life – a few simple strategies and behaviour changes can help take the stress out of managing your inbox. Step one: stop worrying so much about it.
The real challenge with managing email is reducing its impact on your life, especially outside work hours.
“The biggest mistake people make with email is prioritizing it too high,” says Steve Prentice, an expert in at-work productivity. “It’s really not that important.”
Here are 6 more ways to keep your email under control and release its vice-like grip on your workday.
Schedule Email Time
When we receive email, we experience social pressure to respond right away to the person waiting on the other end. New messages seem urgent, so we jump to attention each time we see one arrive. But answering instantly can be counterproductive to your workflow. “There’s a physiological thing that happens inside your brain when you respond to an urgency immediately, and it takes 5 to 10 minutes to get back to the same level of focus you were at before the email came in,” Prentice explains. “If you're doing this all the time, you're likely working at a sub-level performance all day.”
A better tactic is to set aside blocks of time in your daily schedule to devote solely to answering emails. The rest of your work will benefit, and you’ll likely compose more thoughtful responses when you don’t feel pressed for time.
What if your clients have come to expect immediate responses? Chances are, most of their requests aren't urgent. “Clients expect excellent customer service, but that doesn't mean responding to email in two seconds,” Prentice says. Manage their expectations by letting them know how often you’ll respond to emails each day. They'll likely get used to your schedule and appreciate the time you're taking to respond to their requests.
Reduce Your Incoming Mail
If you're spending more than an hour and a half on email each day, Prentice suggests taking steps to limit the number of messages you receive. Start by unsubscribing from unnecessary lists, and forward useful newsletters into a separate folder to read at a set time in your schedule. Then question your cc policy. “Often there's this need to feel like you're in the loop, but people who have studied this kind of thing say that you don't need to be involved in every conversation,” Prentice says. Decide what you really need to be copied on, and ask your team to be judicious about the email they send your way.
Encourage Real-Time Conversation
Sometimes a problem that takes hours or even days to resolve over email can be solved in as little as five minutes with a phone call or face-to-face conversation. Ask clients and team members to schedule a five-minute call or a quick meeting to eliminate the need for endless back-and-forth messages. "For those concerned about leaving a paper trail, send a single summary email to review what was discussed," Prentice suggests.
Forgo One-Word Responses
It's not important to acknowledge receipt with a follow-up message that says, "Thanks!" The sender will know if their email hasn't reached you if they receive a failed delivery message from their email provider. Though you may feel compelled to thank someone for their correspondence, you're likely cluttering up their inbox, and encouraging them to do the same to you. If you're concerned about seeming impolite, address your email style head-on at the start of a new business relationship. "I'll say to somebody jokingly, please accept my thanks now for every email we exchange in the future," Prentice says. That sets the tone for ongoing email conversations, and encourages clients and colleagues to mirror your style.
Set Aside Time to Answer Challenging Emails
An email that requires more than a couple of minutes to resolve should no longer be considered an email. "That is an appointment and should be moved to your calendar," Prentice advises. "The danger of emails that come with this hidden payload is that you've scheduled your time with other activities and you forget that there's an email waiting for you that's going to take you an hour to resolve." Better to assign a time to respond appropriately and work it into the rest of your day.
The real challenge with managing email is reducing its impact on your life, especially outside work hours. Creating a schedule and setting limits on when and where you respond to messages can help decrease your everyday stress and make your workday more productive.